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The Three Levels of 'Suffering' in Successful Stories

Most successful stories follow similar patterns. These patterns are few in number, and once you have spotted their frameworks, they become easy to detect in good stories, just like a body language specialist can take one look at the way you sit or move and be able to determine much about your character.

For example, in the vast majority of stories, the chief characters suffer a great deal for the bulk of the plot: they are immersed in crises, disasters, illnesses, losses, mysteries and so on, which keep them emotionally pinned down and in ‘victim’ mode. This is true of classic fiction, modern novels, films and anything else that you care to name. The mechanical truth behind this is that if the characters were happy, balanced, forward and outward-looking and in other ways living an ideal life they would dismally fail to attract reader attention. The stark reality is that only losses, unknowns, gaps, and other departures from the ideal have the ‘pulling power’ to glue readers to the page. These ‘holes’ or vacuums (described at length in my book How Stories Really Work) have to grow in size in order for the story to have momentum. Only in the last few pages or minutes of the book or film do these things resolve in some way — at least in adventure stories or comedies and romances. If the story is a tragedy or an irony (including the horror genre), these vacuums remain open and leave the reader feeling chilled or haunted on purpose.

It boils down to three stages of ‘suffering’ for characters in fiction:

1. Characters are plunged into losses, threats, gaps, mysteries or other kinds of vacuum as soon as possible — the first signs of vacuums are actually within their own created personas — and these holes grow in size for the bulk of the plot.

2. As the story nears its end, the vacuums are either progressively filled in some way — losses are restored, threats dealt with, gaps blocked up, mysteries resolved —or intentionally left unfilled.

3. Right at the end, in the majority of stories — which are epics or adventure tales — all suffering ends. In tragedies or ironies, the suffering continues or grows.

If you don’t believe me, take the latest book you’ve read or movie you’ve seen and look at it in terms of suffering. What’s the ‘curve’ there?

If there is no suffering at all, it’s unlikely that you stuck with the tale more than a few pages or minutes — suffering creates the thing we call a ‘story’. A story could be defined as the pattern of departing from an ideal and either returning to it or to some new version of it, or, if the story is tragic or ironic, purposely not returning to it.

It sounds simple and it is.

You can use that simplicity to assess any piece of fiction you’re writing and reshape it as needed.

‘But doesn’t that just create “cookie-cutter” fiction, in which all stories are the same shape?’ someone might ask. No — it creates stories. Unless that basic template is used, you won’t have a story. You might have a report, or an account, or an essay, or a description or some other piece of writing — but you won’t have a story, a piece of writing which grips, glues, moves and emotionally affects readers.

It’s like having an engine in which the pistons were incapable of creating a space which then had to be filled, or a pair of lungs which never emptied, or a planetary atmosphere in which there was no wind because there was no difference in pressure. Without emptiness (or suffering, in human emotional terms) you cannot have movement, or action, or life.

You get the idea.

Think about it, take a look at your stories, and let me know what you find.


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